Can a Lawyer Have Two Specialties? (Yes, but…)

  • Time to read: 5 min.

Yes, a lawyer can have two specialties, or even more than that.

However, it is rare for a lawyer to truly be an “expert” in multiple areas of law, and clients should think twice about hiring an attorney who claims to be a “specialist” in multiple areas of law.

Let us explain.

Can a Lawyer Have Two Specialties? (Explained)

We know of no law or bar rule that prevents attorneys from specializing in multiple areas of law.

In fact, it is really common for lawyers to handle more than one area of law, and to do that work really well.

In general, if you can adequately, effectively, and zealously handle a client’s case (barring the need for additional training or certification), there’s nothing necessarily wrong with it.

Many areas of law dovetail into each other, and it makes sense to know multiple areas of law intimately to better serve their clients and troubleshoot future problems.

However, let’s talk about what constitutes a “specialty.”

It is common for lawyers to ‘hold out’ (meaning tell people in person, in their advertisements, or on the firm website) that they practice in certain areas of law (such as divorce, custody, criminal law, personal injury, etc).

But to state that an attorney is a “divorce lawyer specialist” creates a presumption that they attorney is especially knowledgeable or skilled in that practice area.

The bar does not generally police attorneys on their claimed practice areas unless and until it becomes evident that they attorney is unable to adequately and competently handle the case.

Attorneys do not have to apply to be considered a specialist.

There’s no approval process.

They just need to be able to back up (with their work) any claims they make as for what they know how to do in a practice area.

Sometimes you won’t know whether that lawyer is truly a “specialist” until you have had a chance to work with that lawyer for a while, or even until after the case is finished.

Find out how long your potential lawyer has been practicing, and ask a lot of questions about specific cases the attorney has handled.

If the lawyer has only been licensed to practice for a year and can’t give you any ‘war stories’ (what we call the stories about the time he handled this case or that and here is what happened) then you’ll want to consider interviewing different candidates until you start hearing about the time the lawyer actually confronted a particular problem.

Attorneys are expected to keep themselves honest about the kinds of cases that they are prepared to handle.

But bills are bills, and many lawyers learn what they think they need to do on the fly as they go, which is hardly something the client wants to know.

The lack of regulation about the term “specialists” is one of many reasons why it is so important to take care while hiring lawyers, and to seek out attorneys that have been recommended to you by people you trust, who have also had an experience with the particular firm.

Working As A General Practice Lawyer

Disclosure: The author of this section (anonymous) graduated from law school and practiced law for 10 years.

Many lawyers are considered “jacks of all trades” meaning they can handle almost any kind of case.

This is true, to some degree.

A licensed attorney can handle any kind of case with the exception of those which need additional certifications, such as patent law.

However, just because they can, doesn’t mean that the client should hire an attorney who is a generalist, or try and persuade him to handle a case he hasn’t handled before.

And it doesn’t mean that a generalist should handle cases that appear to require specialist level experience.

I worked as a trial attorney at a general practice firm for 10 years.

In that time, I rarely handled the same kind of case twice in a row.

As the years passed, I gained a lot of schools in the general practice of law, in areas like case management, trial management, interviewing witnesses, depositions, legal writing, negotiation, and more.

But I often spent a lot of time learning the law in each of the areas of practice, and in hindsight there were probably some decisions we would have made differently if I’d already been a specialist in those particular cases.

I never charged clients for the time I spent getting up to speed in a particular area of law.

But some attorneys might end up doing what I would consider ‘over-charging’ their clients to get the case work done.

If you don’t know what cases to look up to write a memo, for example, or you don’t have any previously written memorandums on the topic to use as a starting place, the work product ends up taking more time.

As a generalist, there is a lot of pressure from the firm and from clients to pick up all kinds of cases, especially in areas that you’ve never handled before, on the back of your ability to learn new practices quickly and effectively.

Specialists often charge a lot more per hour than generalists, and the lower rate is all that the clients can afford (or want to afford).

While the generalist may charge less, he may not be able to offer the same level of skill that the specialist offers, the product of his years working in that one area of law and handling the same kinds of cases again and again.

And while the generalist charges less, the bill might end up costing less in the end because the specialist can do the same work in a fraction of the time.

This is not to say that a generalist cannot do a good job (because I did a great job and my clients were happy with me).

But generalists can’t always take action with the same level of confidence as a specialist, because we just haven’t handled 100 cases where that same or similar fact pattern came up.

Clients should make sure to do their due diligence when hiring an attorney to handle their case, to make sure that the attorney is truly ready to offer specialist level service regardless of how or what he holds himself out to be.

Wrap Up

Thinking about going to law school or becoming an attorney? Check out our law school and career guides in our legal library.

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